Vladimir Sofronitsky

Sofronitsky the Legend

In the history of performance art certain names stand out for the special associations they evoke. The twentieth century gave us a striking constellation of great musicians, including pianists. But at the name "Sofronitsky" we experience a unique sensation. He stands alone. There never was and never will be another like him. He fits no category, and remains indefinable. The one label that everyone rightly assigns him is "great romantic". But it is a mystery that the twentieth century, utterly unromantic, short on "sincerity of feelings", bursts of passion, delicacy of emotion, and exercises in "self-immolation", would produce a musician who embodied these qualities in their highest form.

The name of Sofronitsky is connected above all, and properly so, with the music of Chopin and Scriabin. For Sofronitsky's generation, nineteenth-century interpretations of Chopin had long been considered problematic. The numerous layers of sentimentality under which the salon school buried Chopin's music had been replaced by technically perfect renditions, irreproachable in their purity of sound, but clearly deficient. Something imperceptible escaped the majority of performers, even the greatest. A certain Chopin "nerve" was left untouched.

This sense of Chopin's music, inexpressible in words, and impossible to teach, was God's gift to Sofronitsky. Those who heard him in concert recall the invisible but tangible connection he established with his audience. In this bond lay the very essence of Chopin's music. Sofronitsky's loftiness of inspiration, and the exactness with which he could strike the Chopin "nerve", were qualities possessed by no other pianist-at least those whose art is accessible to us, if only in recordings. This feature of Sofronitsky's style was conspicuously manifest in his performances of other composers as well: Scriabin, whom he idolized, and whose oeuvre he could perform practically in its entirety; the unfathomable and fantastic universe of Schumann; the philosophical works of Liszt; and Schubert, Mozart, and Prokofiev.

It is our misfortune that we can listen to Sofronitsky only in recordings, for the art of this exquisite pianist, always subject to fleeting changes in moods, has lost something in transmission. So, at least, affirm those few of our contemporaries who were lucky to hear Sofronitsky live. Because he was out of favor with the government, Sofronitsky was not given the opportunity, still rare in his lifetime, to make stereo recordings, and in any event he disliked studios. Nevertheless, even bearing in mind all these “minuses” to his recordings, we can identify a Sofronitsky recording literally after a few measures. Listeners recognize a living spirit breathing through his music; a style which escapes the confines of the bar lines; a forceful masculinity, combined with refinement and delicacy; a willful rubato that never violates the spirit of the composer. One simple word characterizes perfectly both Sofronitsky’s art and the temperament of the man: beauty. It permeated everything. In the words of Henrich Neigauz, Sofronitsky himself was “beautiful, like a youthful Apollo.” Perhaps Sofronitsky lived in the twentieth century, the cruelest of epochs, as a reminder that a person can be beautiful, and that he can create art.

Vladimir Sofronitsky studied under remarkable teachers in Warsaw and Petersburg, including Anna Lebedeva-Getsevich, Alexander Mikhalovsky, and Leonid Nikolaev. They taught him mastery of his craft, and he remained deeply grateful to them all. But in a larger sense, as is the case with the greatest artists, Sofronitsky was self-taught. He made himself a musician. In his extraordinarily gifted soul were uniquely refracted great music, great painting (his ancestor was the outstanding Russian artist Vladimir Borovikovsky), and great poetry (Sofronitsky’s favorite poet was Alexander Blok). The ability to express art’s innermost core gave him an unsurpassed mastery, one rare among “romantics.” In this he was more modern than, for one, his contemporary and kindred spirit Henrich Neigauz, whose romantic charisma at the piano outstripped his technical abilities. For Sofronitsky everything was subordinate to his pianism. The famous “unevenness” in his playing (and the recurrent cancellation of sections of concerts and even entire performances) were not caused by lapses in technique, but by his emotional states. At every concert Sofronitsky was “on fire,” and sometimes he burned himself out.

At his very first appearance before a wider public, the phenomenon of Sofronitsky attracted attention. His final exam in May, 1921, when he played Liszt’s Sonata in B-minor, belongs to the history of much more than the Petrograd Conservatory. It was one of Russia’s great piano performances. On this day two titans entered the music arena, Maria Yudina and Vladimir Sofronitsky (both students of Leonid Nikolaev). One could not imagine a greater dissimilarity of creative temperament between them. At this early stage in his career, leading musicians and cultural figures like Alexander Glazunov, Alexander Ossovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Petr Konchalovsky had already given the young artist glowing testimonials.

In the period 1928-1930 Sofronitsky made the only extended international tour of his career, to Poland and France. The public, foremost musicians like Prokofiev, Nikolai Medtner, Alexander Borovsky, Alexander Glazunov, F.?? Pleyel, as well as ordinary listeners all welcomed him enthusiastically, grasping immediately the significance of this rare appearance by a Russian pianist. Although many expected him to remain in the West, which worshiped him, Sofronitsky returned to his native land. At that time the Iron Curtain was already beginning to divide the USSR from the West, and when the great artist returned, it closed immediately behind him. Only once after this did Sofronitsky travel outside the USSR. In 1945, by special order of Stalin, Sofronitsky was asked to play at the Potsdam Conference before the heads of state of the victorious Allies. Sofronitsky was certainly among the best that the USSR could display on such an occasion, as it attempted to burnish its international reputation. But he was heard by only a few people.

The fact that Sofronitsky almost never left the USSR explains why his name in the West in the second half of the twentieth century—and all the more so today—has never won the worldwide notoriety which it deserves. For the majority of music lovers and critics in the United States and Western Europe, Sofronitsky has remained, by all accounts, “a Russian enigma.” The West simply did not have the opportunity to measure his art for its true worth. One can begin to understand what Western audiences lost by simply comparing, for example, the Chopin recordings of Sofronitsky with analogous recordings made by the universally recognized masters of Chopin. Next to Sofronitsky, the latter distinctly smack of the banal.

Besides the works of Chopin, the pearls of Sofronitsky’s repertoire include Schumann’s cycles “Kreisleriana,” “Carnaval,” the “Symphonic Études,” (listeners nicknamed them “Sofronic Etudes”), the “Davidsbündler Dances,” “Papillons,” the Fantasia in C, and “Arabesques.” The element of the fabulous in Schumann’s music, his nervous but sublime impulsiveness, emotional fire, and rich tonal color found in Sofronitsky the rarest of interpreters. He subordinated so much of the music to his own artistic ideas that even for those who knew him only through recordings, it was difficult afterwards to conceive of other interpretations, even if they happened to be remarkable in their own way.

The majority of Liszt’s études and rhapsodies, and his purely virtuoso pieces, were almost never played by Sofronitsky for the stage. Liszt’s philosophical works, however— the second Mephisto Waltz and both his sonatas —and inspired interpretations of Schubert’s lieder are linked for an entire generation of listeners with Sofronitsky’s name.

Schubert and Scriabin. Mozart and Prokofiev. Beethoven and Rachmaninov. Borodin and Lyadov. With a certain degree of caprice Sofronitsky would choose masterpieces closest to him in spirit, and became in fact their co-author. His interpretations cannot be confused with those of others. The uncommon delicacy and refinement of his renditions were matched by a complete absence of mannerism or false sincerity. At the foundation of all his interpretations lies a search for authenticity. To his public Sofronitsky was an icon. He would cancel concerts, but they accepted without question the willfulness of their idol, hoping that the next time they would be lucky enough to hear a miracle. When they could, his listeners would sometimes go twice to hear the same program. He would play the same music differently.

Among his peers, Sofronitsky exercised an almost mystical authority. The mid-twentieth century saw the performing arts in Russia at their zenith. At one time Henrich Neigauz, Konstantin Igumnov and Samuil Feinberg were all actively performing, as were Lev Oborin, Maria Yudina, Grigory Ginzburg and Yakov Flier. Gilels and Richter were entering their prime. But among these brilliant artists Sofronitsky occupied a special niche. Their internal rivalries did not touch him in the least. They all worshiped him. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Vladimir Sofronitsky had to drink in full measure the bitter cup of misfortune that was passed to his countrymen. He endured the first terrible blockade winter in Leningrad. Like everyone around him, he knew about the “Black Marias,” arriving in the night to carry away their victims, and he suffered under the hopeless stupidity of Soviet offialdom. The shortage of the most fundamental necessities, the ideological dictates of the Communists... Sofronitsky’s fragile, otherworldly genius endured all of this.

He spent the final period of his creative life, the years 1942 to 1961, in Moscow. Sofronitsky was taken to Moscow during the siege of Leningrad, and there he remained. His favorite concert venues were the Great Hall and the Little Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, as well as the Scriabin Museum. He could score triumphs in the city’s largest halls, but according to the reminiscences of lucky witnesses, the atmosphere of his late concerts in the small auditorium of the Scriabin Museum, a hall imbued with its own special spirit, was unique. Sofronitsky "burned out" at the age of 60. From his arrival in our artistic life to his final exit, he blazed like a bright comet from another world. Now only his recordings remain.

by Prof. E.Fedorovich (translated by J.Kopper)